Government Scientists Accuse Bush Administration of Interfering, Misleading on Climate Change

StoryJanuary 31, 2007
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According to a new survey, hundreds of government scientists say they have perceived or personally experienced pressure from the Bush administration to eliminate phrases such as "climate change" and "global warming" from their reports and public statements. One of those scientists, NASA climatologist Drew Shindell, testified Tuesday before the Committee on House Oversight and Government Reform. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The Bush administration was accused on Tuesday of misleading the public over the threat of global warming and of interfering with the work of government scientists studying climate change. According to a new survey, hundreds of government scientists said they’ve perceived or personally experienced pressure to eliminate phrases such as "climate change" and "global warming" from their reports and public statements. One-third of the scientists surveyed also said officials at their agencies have made statements on climate change that misrepresented their findings.

One of those scientists, NASA climatologist Drew Shindell, testified Tuesday before the Committee on House Oversight and Government Reform. Dr. Shindell has worked as a researcher at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies since 1995.

DR. DREW SHINDELL: Scientists provide information to policymakers and the public on issues affecting society. Climate change is clearly such an issue, and one for which it is especially critical that decisions be made using the best available scientific information, as the potential costs to society of action, or of inaction, are large. The Earth, as a whole, is unquestionably warming, and virtually all climate scientists believe that the evidence regarding a human role in this warming is clear and compelling. Multiple lines of evidence, based on measurements, theory and modeling, support these conclusions. The scientific evidence indicates that the Earth is now warmer than at any time during the last thousand years.

While continued warming is inevitable, the seriousness of the consequences of climate change will depend upon societal action to limit the emissions of greenhouse gases and pollutants that are the dominant cause of global warming. These consequences include droughts and flood, increased severity of summer heat waves, and rises in sea level that could devastate low-lying coastal areas.

Although the scientific basis for the conclusion that human activities are altering Earth’s climate is extremely strong, there are questions that are still raised over whether current scientific understanding justifies societal action. One of these arguments has concerned Antarctic temperature trends. While most of the planet has warmed rapidly during the past several decades, much of the Antarctic continent has, by contrast, cooled. Lack of an adequate explanation for this has been cited as evidence that scientific understanding of climate change is simply too incomplete to warrant taking action to mitigate global warming.

In the fall of 2004, a team I led at NASA published a paper providing an explanation of how ozone depletion over Antarctica and increasing greenhouse gases could together account for this observed cooling of Antarctica. The study was the first to look at how these two factors work together to influence Antarctic temperatures. It not only helped to explain the observed cooling, but also predicted a warmer future for Antarctica based on projections of continued increases in greenhouse gases. This has clear implications both for the debate on global warming and for potential sea-level rise, as Antarctica contains an enormous reservoir of water in its ice sheets.

The NASA press corps and I wrote a press release on these findings to convey them to the broader public. While previous to this time, press releases had been issued rapidly and with reservations from headquarters that basically were made to improve clarity and style, this release was repeatedly delayed, altered and eventually watered down. When we at GISS enquired of those higher up the NASA chain what was going on, we were told in the fall of 2004 [inaudible] that releases were being delayed because two political appointees and the White House were now reviewing all climate-related press releases.

Scientists do not simply explore what we are most curious about. We know that our research is funded by the public, and we go to great lengths to provide policy-relevant information to support decision making. While it was frustrating for me to see my work suppressed, even more importantly it’s a disservice to the public to distort or suppress information needed. But that experience is only one example of a series of actions that attempted to suppress communication of climate science to the public.

Also during the fall of 2004, NASA headquarters insisted that a NASA press officer be present to monitor all interviews, either in person or on the phone, a measure most of us felt was unbefitting of a democratic society. As with the interference with press releases, the restrictions were not imposed on other parts of NASA, such as space science, or even other areas of Earth science outside of climate research.

AMY GOODMAN: NASA climatologist Drew Shindell, testifying Tuesday before the Committee on House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. The committee’s chair, Henry Waxman, later questioned Shindell about how the Bush administration has altered scientific reports to downplay the threat of global warming.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Many experts are telling us that global warming is one of the most severe environmental threats facing this nation and the world, that challenges confronting us are enormous potentially, and therefore, I think policymakers have an obligation to understand the science, and we need to get that scientific information without any manipulation of the science, without any suppressing of the reports, or misleading the public about the issues seems to me would be a breach of the public trust. So we have been asking for this information.

Dr. Shindell, you’re one of the nation’s leading climate change scientists, and I want to discuss some of the documents that the committee staff reviewed and ask whether you are concerned about the issues in these documents. First of all, let me begin by asking about some of the edits urged by the White House Office of Management and Budget. OMB asked that an EPA report be rewritten to remove the statement that global warming may "alter regional patterns of climate" and "potentially affect the balance of radiation." Dr. Shindell, do you think this was an appropriate change in the document? The statement in the EPA draft was that climate change can alter regional climates and affect the balance of radiation. Is there any scientific justification for removing these assertions?

DR. DREW SHINDELL: No. That is a very well-supported statement. For the change in the energy balance of the planet, we have satellite data and have measured that balance directly for decades now, and we can see it changing. It is extremely well documented and uncontroversial.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Another —- excuse me. Another edit I want to -—

DR. DREW SHINDELL: As far as regional patterns, I mentioned before, Antarctica has gone the other way from the rest of the globe. Different areas have warmed more, others less. It’s quite clear that this is happening.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Another edit deleted the phrase, "Changes observed over the last several decades are likely mostly the result of human activities." And that phrase was replaced with a phrase that said, "A causal link between the build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the observed climate changes during the 20th century cannot be unequivocally established." Is this an appropriate change? Does the rephrasing accurately represent the science, or does it mislead the public?

DR. DREW SHINDELL: I would say that that is also a misleading statement. While technically true, the first statement, that human activities play the dominant role, is a much more accurate picture of the science.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: Some of the edits we reviewed were made by CEQ chief of staff Philip Cooney. Mr. Cooney is not a scientist by training. Instead, he’s a lawyer who was working as a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute before he was appointed to his position at the Council on Environmental Quality. And I’d like to ask you some questions about his edits. In one document, Mr. Cooney deleted a reference to the National Research Council’s finding that human activities are causing temperatures to rise. Obviously, the National Research Council is this country’s premier scientific body. Can you tell us if there is a scientific basis for deleting a reference to this finding?

DR. DREW SHINDELL: No. That is again a well-supported statement.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: In the same document, Mr. Cooney deleted the phrase, "Climate change has global consequences for human health and the environment." Is there anything scientifically questionable about this phrase?


REP. HENRY WAXMAN: In yet another edit, Mr. Cooney wrote that satellite data disputes global warming. Is this scientifically valid?

DR. DREW SHINDELL: No. There was for many years a controversy, where satellite data showed warming but to a different degree than was seen at the surface or that was predicted by models higher up in the atmosphere. It never disputed global warming, and that controversy has since been resolved.

REP. HENRY WAXMAN: If climate changes offer us an incredibly serious problem, then we need to get the facts and rely on federal scientists and agencies to give Congress and the public the true facts about this global threat. Yet the preliminary evidence we’re seeing from the White House suggests that the administration may have taken a very different approach. If the documents we have seen so far are representative, it appears that the White House installed a former oil industry lobbyist as the chief of staff for the Council on Environmental Quality and then systematically sought to prevent the Environmental Protection Agency from reporting on dangers to health, the environment and the economy. In effect, it appears that there may have been an orchestrated effort to mislead the public about the threat of global climate change. These are serious allegations, and they are ones that we’ll be exploring in detail in this hearing and in our ongoing investigation.

AMY GOODMAN: Congressmember Henry Waxman questioning NASA climatologist Drew Shindell.

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